Couples: Start Avoiding These Four Horsemen This Summer

Hopefully one day I will have the skills of Dr. John Gottman, who has been studying couples in his “Love Lab” up in Seattle for years. It is said that he can tell with 90% accuracy whether or not a couple is headed for divorce by listening to them talk for 15 minutes.

I’m not down to 15 minutes yet, but I can share with you what he and I are looking for so you can watch out for these “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse” on your own:

  1. Criticism
  2. Contempt (criticism from a position of superiority)
  3. Defensiveness
  4. Stonewalling (shutting down)

Gottman has identified these four “cloaks” of communication as the greatest predictors of divorce. I explain these to couples clients early on because they have usually been having the same argument repeatedly, feeling unheard and frustrated. Why would their partner, someone who loves them and is committed to them, be missing or rejecting such an important message?

When they use one of these four methods to communicate their point, that their partner hears only one of the 4 cloaks, and not the message. An example:

He: You always leave the kitchen such a mess for me to clean up when you’re finished cooking. (criticism)
She: At least I make dinner. If it were left to you, we’d eat out every night and have no money. (defensiveness, followed by contempt).

Ouch! Each partner has a valid point of view, but because they cloak it in criticism and defensiveness, their message is missed. They must rephrase.

It is rare that a couple in my office is actually at a complete impasse when it comes to problem-solving. “You don’t need me,” I tell them, “to help you figure out where your mother-in-law should sleep when she visits.” What they do need though, and what I teach, is how they can have that discussion on their own using productive communication.
Usually each partner has his and her predominate horseman. For example, she is critical and he is defensive. Or he speaks contemptuously and she shuts down.

The Greatest Predictor of Divorce

Beware of contempt; it is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be avoided at all costs. In fact, contempt not only predicts divorce, but also according to a different research study, also roughly corresponds to the frequency of physical illness (colds or flu, etc.) of the partner on the receiving end of contempt.